What started out as a good-natured pledge to increase banking services in a poor section of New York City has led to some unintended consequences for a Brooklyn banker.
Charles J. Hamm, president and chief executive officer of Brooklyn's Independence Savings Bank, said he pledged $1 million worth of banking services in Brooklyn's Red Hook section if 3,000 signatures could be collected in favor of the plan.
Residents took that to mean a full-service branch, the first for Red Hook in years. Wednesday, after collecting the signatures, they sought to collect.
But Mr. Hamm says he never promised a branch, and isn't quite prepared to open one in Red Hook. The thrift and residents are still cooperating to come up with a solution, but continue to debate exactly what Mr. Hamm offered last spring.
The episode illustrates the pitfalls of community reinvestment commitments by financial institutions. Often, a commitment to increase banking services can mean different things to different people, and in the often politicized world of community reinvestment, defining exactly what it means can be all-important.
"I'm not even sure Red Hook could support a profitable branch," Mr. Hamm said this week. " ... You don't want to put a branch in one month and close it six months later."
But residents who mustered the signatures beg to differ. They say Mr. Hamm promised them a branch, and they're out to get it.
The Red Hook Banking Committee, which presented Mr. Hamm with the signatures Wednesday night, said it still insists on a branch. Located in southern Brooklyn - and separated from the rest of the borough by the Gowanus Expressway - Red Hook proper is home only to a check cashing service. A Chase Manhattan Bank branch sits just on the edge of the waterfront community.
"We're going to hold him to his word," said Fernando Bolton, a resident and member of the Red Hook Banking Committee. "We hope that he meant what he said."
Mr. Hamm discovered the Red Hook group's insistence on a branch hours before he was to receive the signatures at a community meeting Wednesday night. He could not be reached for comment after the meeting.
Despite his disavowal of the group's news release announcing the future branch, he said that he wanted to work with the committee to come up with a solution to their banking problems.
Members of the Red Hook Banking Committee were encouraged after Wednesday's meeting at the Red Hook Public Library, said Hilary Botein, associate director of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, a resource center for community groups fighting bank "redlining."
"He wasn't going to commit in stone," Ms. Botein said. "But I feel very positive."
Mr. Bolton and Ms. Botein were among a group of 12 people who canvassed the neighborhood of 12,000 residents in search of signatures.
"A lot of people were cooperative but a lot of them were very reluctant," Mr. Bolton said. "A lot of people have lived here all their lives and are convinced that things will never change."